Season at stake for Atlantic Hockey’s four remaining teams in championship weekend

Brandon Denham and Robert Morris and Alexander Kuqali’s RIT are on opposite sides of the bracket this weekend (photo: Omar Phillips).

Four teams, one dream.

The quartet of Atlantic Hockey teams that have fought their way through to Blue Cross Arena will compete this weekend for the league championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament. With no AHC team close enough to an at-large bid, the NCAAs really began for these teams more than a week ago, in the league’s quarterfinal round. Win and advance. Lose and your season is over.

Atlantic Hockey playoffs

See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Atlantic Hockey Playoff Central.

Mercyhurst had the most dramatic path to Blue Cross. The Lakers staged a wild comeback in Sunday’s third and deciding quarterfinal series game at Bentley. Down 2-0 with less than eight minutes to play, Mercyhurst scored a pair of quick goals in the 52nd minute, and then stunned the Falcons with the game winner with less than six seconds to play.

Rochester Institute of Technology returns to Blue Cross after a two-year absence. The Tigers were picked to finish seventh before the season started but went 10-4-2 in the second half to end up in third place. RIT eliminated Air Force, its postseason nemesis, with 2-1 and 7-3 victories last weekend in front of raucous crowds at its new Polisseni Center.

Canisius draws a couple of similarities to RIT in claiming the second seed. The Golden Griffs also played their first playoff series in a new building, Buffalo’s HarborCenter. Canisius also finished strong, going 12-3-2 down the stretch. The Griffs won a pair of close, playoff-style games against Sacred Heart, sweeping the Pioneers 2-0 and 2-1.

Robert Morris comes into the final weekend as the top seed. The Colonials led the conference standings from wire to wire, and by a comfortable margin for most of the season. They swept a resurgent Niagara team 4-2 and 6-3.

It was a different road than last year for Robert Morris, which won the title as the fifth seed.

“It was a marathon last year,” said Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley. “We had three games against Army [in the first round], then had to travel all the way to UConn [in the quarterfinals], then come home and turn it around very quickly and get to Rochester. It seemed like the playoffs went on forever. This time it was two at home and get the job done.”

The Colonials (and the other three teams coming to Rochester) had a bye in the first round, and Schooley said his main worry was being ready after a week off.

“We had to make sure we came out with energy,” he said. “We were very aware of what happened last year when three of the four teams that had byes lost in the quarterfinals. Niagara certainly had our attention. Hats off to them. It was not a typical one-versus-11 matchup.”

Like last season, Robert Morris will look to goaltender Dalton Izyk to lead it to the promised land. He and Terry Shafer split time up until the final weekend of the regular season, when Izyk got the nod moving forward.

Izyk was pressed into duty last year due to an injury to Shafer in the first round of the playoffs. This year, he’s won the role.

“It’s been a luxury having two starting goaltenders all season,” said Schooley. “This isn’t a shot at Terry Shafer, who would be the starting goalie in the playoffs for a lot of teams in this league. He’s handled it like a true professional and teammate. But Dalton seems to find a way to win.”

Izyk is 7-1 in postseason play and brings that experience into the final Atlantic Hockey weekend. Schooley said none of the four teams will be starstruck.

“We’re back. Canisius has been to the championship game two years in a row. Mercyhurst has been there all four years. RIT was there when their seniors were freshmen and play in the building every year,” he said.

“All four teams have a tremendous amount of confidence going into this weekend.”

No kind of luck except bad

You have to feel for Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist and his team, especially the seniors. While last Sunday’s loss was heartbreaking, the Falcons have been there before.

Three times in the past four seasons, Bentley has been a goal away from getting to Rochester for the first time since 2009.

Last season, the Falcons defeated Canisius 4-3 in overtime in Game 1 of a home quarterfinal series, made it to double overtime of Game 2 before falling 5-4, and then lost the deciding game 3-2.

In 2012, the location was different, but the results the same as the Falcons beat host RIT 4-1 in Game 1 before falling, again in double overtime, in what could have been a deciding Game 2. Bentley had erased a 4-1 Tigers lead in that contest to force overtime, but couldn’t manage to get the next goal which would have closed out the series. RIT won Game 2 and defeated the Falcons 3-0 in the deciding game the next night.

For all but the seniors on every team, there is always next season. But hopefully for the Falcons the next one won’t end in similar fashion.

Chris Bodo and Mercyhurst play Robert Morris in the semifinals (photo: Omar Phillips).

Here we go

The semifinals in Rochester will be:

No. 5 Mercyhurst (18-15-4) vs. No. 1 Robert Morris (24-7-5)
The Lakers rebounded from a rough end to the regular season with an amazing comeback against Bentley. They were outplayed most of the series but found a way to win, which is what they’re going to have to do against the No. 20 Colonials. The teams split a pair of games at Mercyhurst back in December.

No. 3 Rochester Institute of Technology (17-14-5) vs. No. 2 Canisius (18-11-7)
These longtime rivals meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Canisius is the “home team” for this game, but expect a large and partisan crowd on the Tigers’ side. RIT’s offense and Canisius’ defense are both clicking right now, making for a classic matchup. The Tigers took three of four points from the Golden Griffins in Buffalo back in November.

Recognition

The league has announced its all-star and all-rookie teams and will be handing out individual awards on Thursday. My co-columnist Dan Rubin and I have made our selections.

First team

Dan:
F Matt Garbowsky, RIT
F Josh Mitchell, RIT
F Cody Wydo, Robert Morris
D Chris Rumble, Canisius
D Steve Weinstein, Bentley
G Matt Ginn, Holy Cross

Chris:
F Ralph Cuddemi, Canisius
F Matt Garbowsky, RIT
F Cody Wydo, Robert Morris
D Chris Rumble, Canisius
D Steve Weinstein, Bentley
G Matt Ginn, Holy Cross

Second team

Dan:
F Ralph Cuddemi, Canisius
F Andrew Gladiuk, Bentley
F Cole Gunner, Air Force
D Brady Norrish, RIT
D Ryan Misiak, Mercyhurst
G Jayson Argue, Bentley

Chris:
F Andrew Gladiuk, Bentley
F Cole Gunner, Air Force
F Brad McGowan, RIT
D Ryan Misiak, Mercyhurst
D Brady Norrish, RIT
G Keegan Asmundson, Canisius

Third team

Dan:
F Zac Lynch, Robert Morris
F Austin Orszulak, American International
F Tyler Pham, Army
D Jake Bolton, Holy Cross
D Mitch Nylen, Sacred Heart
G Keegan Asmundson, Canisius

Chris:
F Zac Lynch, Robert Morris
F Josh Mitchell, RIT
F Austin Orszulak, American International
D Chase Golightly, Robert Morris
D Alexander Kuqali, RIT
G Jayson Argue, Bentley

Honorable mentions (combined picks of Dan and Chris)

Maurice Alvarez (Army), Daniel Bahntge (Mercyhurst), Chad Demers (Air Force), Max French (Bentley), Keegan Harper (Niagara), Scott Holm (Air Force), Dalton Izyk (Robert Morris), Scott Jacklin (Robert Morris), Anthony Mastrodicasa (Mercyhurst), Jordan Minello (Sacred Heart), John Rey (Robert Morris), Jordan Ruby (RIT), Terry Shafer (Robert Morris), Brett Switzer (Bentley), Alex Vazzano (Sacred Heart), Tyson Wilson (Robert Morris), Matthew Zay (Mercyhurst).

All-rookie

Dan:
F Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris
F Tyler Pham, Army
F Jack Riley, Mercyhurst
D Andrew Debrincat, American International
D Brady Norrish, RIT
G Jayson Argue, Bentley

Chris:
F Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris
F Tyler Pham, Army
F Jack Riley, Mercyhurst
D Keegan Harper, Niagara
D Brady Norrish, RIT
G Jayson Argue, Bentley

Rookie honorable mentions (combined picks of Dan and Chris)

Erik Baskin (Air Force), Phil Boje (Air Force), Jonathan Charbonneau (Mercyhurst), Johno May (American International), TJ Moore (Holy Cross), Scott Pooley (Holy Cross)

Player of the year

Dan:
Matt Garbowsky, RIT

Chris:
Matt Garbowsky, RIT

Rookie of the year

Dan:
Tyler Pham, Army

Chris:
Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris

Defenseman of the year

Dan:
Steve Weinstein, Bentley

Chris:
Chris Rumble, Canisius

Coach of the year

Dan:
Wayne Wilson, RIT

Chris:
Wayne Wilson, RIT

I’ve loved these days

This is my last column of the season, and this is the place where I thank a lot of people for their assistance and patience throughout the season. This is, by my count, my 16th version of annual postseason gratitude, so I will try to keep it short.

Thanks to my co-columnist Dan Rubin, whose enthusiasm is contagious. It’s been a benefit to see things through the eyes of someone who hasn’t been doing this for over 25 years.

Thanks to my editor, Todd Milewski, who rounds my edges with great skill. And kudos to the best team of writers in the business, the USCHO gang. Our behind-the-scenes conversations often save my sanity. I’m looking forward to working with you in Boston in a few weeks.

Thanks to the coaches, players and league officials who have been generous with their time and tolerant of my questions.

Thanks to league sports information director Dave Rourke and the SIDs from all 11 schools, who put in ridiculous hours during the season to keep us informed.

Thanks to my broadcast partners, Scott Biggar, Nick Phelan and Ed Trefzger. Long hours and long laughs.

Thanks to my family, which is used to my crazy schedule by now, but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for putting up with me.

And finally, thanks to you, dear reader. When I’m holed up in the dark with my laptop at 1 in the morning, I’m motivated by the thought that someone, somewhere might be reading.

There’s still some fantastic hockey to come. Enjoy.